When you think of a tropical island, you normally dream of see-through, crystalline beaches and the occasional lonely starfish splayed across the ocean floor. Perhaps you conjure up images of a pina colada, topped with the expectant neon blue umbrella. Your toes curl in the pleasant warmth of the sand and like every prudent human on this planet, you dream of never leaving this imaginary haven.
So when I removed my overly large sun hat to take a look at my lunch, I was confused. I was given a massive bowl of steaming hot, beef stew for lunch in the palmy beaches of the Dominican Republic.
I peered over my dramatically gigantic bowl and started to sweat. How, in the name of all things normal in the world of cooking, did a hot country come up with hot stew as their cultural dish?
Folks, the sancocho made me sweat in 95 degree weather, and I was already sweating. My name is Katherine and I am a sancocho survivor.
The sancocho is a stew. It’s a big ol’ pot of salted meat – pork butt, beef ribs, free range chicken (it’s preferred that the chicken is wild and literally running around clucking before its death) are the basis of the typical sancocho. It’s also cooked with tubers, plantains, yucca, corn, and one must-have ingredient – pumpkin. Between the starches and meat, the broth becomes a yellowish-brown color that is rich in flavor, thick, and well-heeled in its history.
Dominican Republic isn’t the only tropical country with the sancocho. Its movement stretches to the far reaches of the Caribbean Sea, touching countries like Panama and Venezuela. It’s quite a beauty to see the sancocho maneuver its way into Latin America and evolve into several variations, like a shape-shifting creature adapting to its countries’ typical foods. For example, while the Dominican Republic focuses on free range chicken as the primary meat in the stew, Panama adds guandu beans, a common food in Panama, for that extra protein kick and gravy-like thickness in their broth. Ecuador doesn’t add corn, but El Salvador will add cow stomach for a gamier aroma.
The start of the sancocho movement can be traced from the Canary Islands in the early 18th century. The Canarians call it Puchero Canario. Once Spain loosened its tight hold trade policies in the 1820s, Canary Islanders flooded to the Caribbean, landing in Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Santo Domingo, La Guaira, Cumaná, and several smaller ports, taking with them tobacco harvesting techniques, slaves and the sancocho.
Making a sancocho can take hours to achieve its thick yet savory texture. A poorly made and ‘quick’ sancocho can result in a dull, bland liquid that is too light to be a called a proper stew. The art in making the sancocho is perfecting the right texture – thick, aromatic and heavy – and working on your patience to let the meat and starchy vegetables wrap in each other’s flavors that make each and every ingredient an essential part of the sancocho.
From its movement from medieval Europe to Spain, to sprinkling its influence throughout the Caribbean Sea, the sancocho is simply not just a dish. It’s a vessel, loaded with history and chunks of modifications, each country shaping the sancocho into their own version. Such a dish is worth the heat.
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